Wattlebark was used as a leather preservative and tanning agent and is one of Victoria's oldest forest products. As early as the 1810s, sealers supplemented their income by gathering wattlebark and transporting it to Britain with their seal cargo. Later, Victorian farmers in forested districts sold wattlebark to boost their income in quiet times.
Wattlebark collectors stripped bark from the trunks of golden, black or silver wattles. They ground or chopped the bark in a mill then soaked it. The liquid was then used to tan leather. Stripping bark usually killed the trees and wattlebarking left many forests devastated.
Eucalyptus oil was another forest product which provided extra cash for early Victorian settlers. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, small 'cottage' distilleries operated in the Mallee, Wimmera, Central Victoria and West Gippsland. Many women worked distilleries on farms or in sawmill settlements using leaves from trees felled for timber or clearing. Eucalyptus oil was used in pharmaceuticals, confectionery and paint.
The Forests Commission distillery near Bendigo operated for nearly twenty five years after 1926. The most well known Victorian eucalyptus distiller was Joseph Bosisto who introduced the industry to the Wimmera in 1882, producing 'Emu' brand oil. The industry declined during the 1950s and Spain and Portugal now dominate the commercial production of eucalyptus oil. A private eucalyptus distillery is still operating in the Whipstick forest near Bendigo.
Charcoal Blacksmiths of the nineteenth century were avid users of charcoal to heat metal. Victorian forests provided a living for numerous small scale charcoal burners. Charcoal kilns were usually simple constructions; shallow earthen pits covered with turf and clay or cylindrical metal kilns made from old drums or boilers. As horses became less popular and mechanisation made blacksmiths redundant, charcoal production also declined.
The charcoal industry revived during the Second World War. Wartime petrol rationing encouraged the use of charcoal as a source of 'producer gas', a substitute fuel for cars and trucks. By 1941, the Forests Commission operated charcoal kilns in many forest locations including Heywood, Dunolly, Ballarat, Yarram, Benalla and Cohuna. At Mt Cole, the Commission worked six kilns, with the workers camping in the forest nearby. By mid 1942 the Commission had 221 kilns producing 1000 tons of charcoal a month. When petrol rationing ceased at the end of the war the charcoal industry collapsed.
During the 1930s and 1940s, camps were established in the forest to productively employ prisoners of war, unemployed men and war internees. These men worked in an environment which was thought to be healthy and improving, performing forestry tasks such as cutting firewood, building roads, bridges and dugouts and clearing firebreaks. Prisoner of war forest camps were often established in secret locations to avoid public anxiety about security.
The best known unemployed workers camp was the Noojee Boys Camp, operating between 1933 and 1939. The Forests Commission trained unemployed boys aged between sixteen and twenty in forest management work. Many of these boys were later employed in the Commission's forest gangs.
View the Working in the forest photo collection.